A Transformative Look at Thinking — and at Teaching Students How to Think

Science writer Annie Murphy Paul’s new book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (2021), argues for expanding our view of how thinking occurs. She does not minimize what the brain does brilliantly in enabling us to ideate, find patterns, and so on, but she does point out the brain’s limitations — through no fault of its own — and, crucially, how to tap into what she calls “extra-neural resources” as a way to augment and improve what happens within the three pounds or so of gray matter encased in our craniums.

Becoming a better critical thinker, something necessary as students work toward transformative realizations, usually requires becoming better thinkers in general. In reading Paul’s descriptions of the extra-neural resources her research and practical application have confirmed, the parallels between her findings and what we work to accomplish with students are readily apparent.

In both the organization of her book and in the blog post, “How I Used My Extended Mind to Write a Book about the Extended Mind” (2021, June 1), Paul organizes her findings in a way that groups extra-neural thinking into three broad categories (pp. 8-9): 1) the feelings and movements of our bodies, 2) the physical spaces in which we learn and work, and 3) the other minds with which we interact. Examples the author provides for ways to tap into extra-neural resources include:

1)   embodied cognition (body-based thinking): use of physical manipulables (e.g., notecards, post-it notes) to spark interactivity among ideas; physical movement and exercise breaks intentionally designed as part of thinking in order to tap into benefits lasting up to two hours after the activity (increased ability to focus attention and resist distraction, and expanded working-memory capacity);

2)   situated cognition (environment-augmented thinking): the natural and built environment can enhance cognitive performance — Paul digs into the research showing that sense of ownership and control over one’s workspace supports better thinking as do cues of identity within that workspace; she delves into the research about engaging with the natural environment to boost creativity and focus; and,

3)   distributed cognition (other-interactive thinking) — referring to, among others, the work of cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier, Paul points out that many of the brain’s built-in limitations, such as cognitive biases, arise from using the brain in solitude: “Humans evolved to reason in a social setting, [Mercier] writes, and when we reason this way, many of these biases disappear” (p. 7).

One important transformative realization a university education seeks to prompt among students is the how and the why of thinking like a scientist. The Expanded Mind lays bare one way we’ve shortchanged our students in getting to this ah-ha moment if faculty have not had students engage in extra-neural learning. Paul recounts the transformative realization Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman had when he “figured out that inducing his students to talk with one another was the key to getting them to think like scientists” (p. 10). Wieman was on to something according to Paul, whose investigation indicates that “research in the vein of the extended mind finds that experts actually do more experimenting, more testing, and more backtracking than beginners. They are more apt than novices to make skillful use of their bodies, of physical space, and of relationships with others” (Paul, 2021, p. 33).

Helping students develop better thinking skills and capacity is important in bringing them along to the transformative understandings we work to prepare them for. Yet Paul argues there is not much teacher education and faculty professional development provided about extra-neural thinking and helping students develop and use these approaches:

[There is] no instruction, for instance, in how to tune in to the body’s internal signals, sensations that can profitably guide our choices and decisions. We’re not trained to use bodily movements and gestures to understand highly conceptual subjects like science and mathematics, or to come up with novel and original ideas. Schools don’t teach students how to restore their depleted attention with exposure to nature and the outdoors, or how to arrange their study spaces so that they extend intelligent thought. Teachers and managers don’t demonstrate how abstract ideas can be turned into physical objects that can be manipulated and transformed in order to achieve insights and solve problems. Employees aren’t shown how the social practices of imitation and vicarious learning can shortcut the process of acquiring expertise. Classroom groups and workplace teams aren’t coached in scientifically validated methods of increasing the collective intelligence of their members. Our ability to think outside the brain has been left almost entirely uneducated and undeveloped (p. 18).

As faculty, we can’t ‘make’ any student have a transformative realization. We do, however, design their learning environments and scaffold their learning to increase the odds. Paul’s book provides new ideas for doing this effectively.

We can also gain new strategies for our own learning and effective thinking by reading The Extended Mind.



Paul, A. M. (2021, June 1). I’m convinced that I could not have written this book without the help of the practices detailed within it. Retrieved June 1, 2021, from https://us2.campaign-archive.com/?u=bc04df008d4705e4e77c2eb35&id=d059f959f9

Paul, A. M. (2021). The extended mind: The power of thinking outside the brain. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


  1. Dear sir/madam,
    I hope you are fine and doing well.
    Would you please mind guiding me about the postdoctoral positions in your university? I am very interested in a postdoctoral position in Education, especially transformative education and research. I have a funding opportunity with me but I need a professor to accept my request for supervision of my postdoctoral research.

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